Is It Dangerous for Dogs to Ride on Your Lap in a Car?

by Bridget Johnson
    Driving with a dog in your lap puts your pup at risk.

    Driving with a dog in your lap puts your pup at risk.

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    It's tempting to let your small dog peer out the car window with a boost from your lap, but navigating the streets with a canine behind the wheel can be unsafe for both you and your pooch. The rather common practice among pet owners has gained the attention of safety advocates. The ASPCA recommends keeping dogs in the back seat during car travel, either secured in a carrier or crate, or attached to a seat belt via a harness.

    Citing risks of distraction and the ability to control a car, authorities in Hawaii can slap drivers with fines if police officers spot a dog riding in a lap. New Jersey can ticket a driver for anything deemed to be improper animal transportation, and Maine, Arizona and Connecticut have distracted-driving laws under which a lap dog could be cause for a ticket. Rhode Island Assembly Rep. Peter Palumbo reintroduced in January 2013 a bill that would cost those caught driving with a dog behind the wheel $85 on a first offense. An Illinois bill introduced in February 2013 by state Reps. Dan Beiser and Dan Burke would make driving with a lap dog a $25 offense, but police couldn't pull over a car solely for this reason. Check with your local police department or state attorney general's office to keep abreast of the latest laws where you live. But safety considerations alone should encourage you to take precautions behind the wheel regardless of what laws are on the books.

    Think of all the things that distract you while driving: a ringing cell phone, chatting with passengers, fiddling with the radio or applying makeup. Now think of how much attention you pay to your dog while in your living room, and add that to the road hazards and unpredictable distractions you face every time you sit behind the wheel. AAA found more than 1 in 5 pooch-transporting drivers surveyed in 2010 let their dogs ride in their lap the previous year. Nearly a third admitted that simply having a dog in the car, no matter where in the vehicle, was distracting.

    A dog can be injured by falling or being hit by debris from an open window during a ride in the car. She can also slip from a driver's lap and fall near the pedals, against a gearshift or center console or somewhere simply difficult to get her footing. But even if a dog stays in a driver's lap, consider the risks posed to her in the event of an accident: According to AAA, a 50-mph crash throws an unrestrained 10-pound dog forward with 500 pounds of pressure; a 30 mph crash exerts 2,400 pounds of forward pressure on an 80-pound dog. Not only can a dog be gravely injured or worse, but the propelled pet can hurt other occupants in the car as well.

    Pet booster seats, including bucket-style lifts that strap onto the seat, can give your small dog a good view out the window and include leash hooks to keep restless pets in their place. You should, however, consider how a front-impact air bag could make contact with your small dog's position, same as the considerations one would take with a small child. Put your dog in a restraint, such as a crate or a seat-belt harness, in the back seat.

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    About the Author

    Bridget Johnson is a veteran print journalist who covers Washington, DC. For more than 15 years, she has been a reporter, editor and award-winning columnist in small and major metropolitan markets across the United States. Johnson has also served as a commentator on numerous radio and TV shows, including NPR's "Tell Me More."

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